'American Idol': A Retrospective

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Depending on which season we're talking about, I usually consider American Idol either a tedious waste of time or the spawn of the devil. I don't cotton to a show that evaluates pop-music voices with cliched critical terms — I've heard too many Idol performances either condemned as "karaoke" or praised as "masterpieces." I also have little use of a competition that, by its painfully conventional standards of pitch, tunefulness and image would never have allowed, say, Little Richard, or Bob Dylan, or Kurt Cobain into its top 40 finalists, let alone handed him the top prize. But now that Kris Allen has become our new American idol, I find myself thinking all the more about the runner-up, Adam Lambert.

I started watching him during the final months of the show, when hardcore fans of the TV show had made his name unavoidable in casual conversation. At first, I had the typical reaction to someone who's doing something different. At first, I hated his performance — all those slow-eyed winks at the camera, those lipcurled sneers, those tight leather outfits. Who did this guy think he was, the 1968 Elvis? But then my indignation melted away and I became fascinated: His confidence was unlike anything I'd seen on Idol — or for that matter, from any recent rock star since Bruce Springsteen, probably the last top-notch rocker alive who still thinks music can unite the country. But Adam Lambert is, of course, no gruff man-of-the-people type. His ever-changing spikey haircuts, his heavy eyeliner and his light leather-bondage emsembles: Here is a guy who knows his own inner David Bowie, his Lou Reed, his Elton John and his Better Midler. On Idol, Lambert was drastically rearranging songs, bending them to his will to power.

By contrast, the young man who eventually won, Kris Allen, fits a more conventional mode, a cross between a soft-voiced teen pop star and a sensitive singer-songwriter who, given the rules of Idol, wasn't writing his own songs. He sang well, he's ordinary-guy handsome and, above all, he's not threatening or polarizing. He became, among all the finalists, the least objectionable choice, which is probably what won him the American Idol title.

When Kris Allen sang "No Boundaries," it's as though he's completely hemmed in by it. By contrast, Adam Lambert is a fascinating mixture of characteristics: On Idol, he was unfailingly polite, frequently using time other contestants use to plug themselves to instead credit the show's house band. Instead of quailing before the judges or sassing them back, Lambert looked each one in the eye with a warm smile and a delightful calmness, as if to say, "There's no comment you can make that will dissuade me from what I want to do here, which is to make you question everything you think you know about music." Which is also why, many weeks, the judges responded to an Adam Lambert performance with variations on, "I'm speechless" and "I don't know what you just did but I love it."

Me, I started thinking, "A gay Elvis Presley — this is exactly what America needs right now." I should say at this point, as the New York Times put it, "Mr. Lambert has not stated his sexual orientation." But between YouTube footage of Lambert in glam-rock musicals and the flamboyance of his gestures and song choices, he represents a gay sensibility considerably more inventive and exciting than that of, say, Clay Aiken. The night Lambert lost, a friend immediately emailed me that this vote was the delayed red-state backlash to Barack Obama's victory. He was joking — somewhat. It's too bad that the one contestant who really could have done something with the title — expanded our notions of what a mass-audience, family-friendly TV idol could be — was denied that tantalizing opportunity. I'm sure Lambert will have some sort of career after his defeat. It's just that I also believe it would have been a lot more interesting career if he was also spending the next year as the kind of American Idol this steamroller of a TV show was designed to crush.

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